Every year, as Purim approaches, I think back to the fear and dread that was our lot in the weeks before Purim 1953. It was the height of the infamous Doctors’ Plot, and our daily lives were nothing short of a living nightmare. The relief was indescribable when we heard the shocking news that our mighty enemy—the incarnation of evil—Stalin, had died. His death marked the abrupt closing of the doctors’ trials and the elimination of the threat that hovered over the heads of millions of Jews in the Soviet Union like dark, threatening clouds.

In order to understand the background behind the Doctors’ Plot, we need to go back to the time of my early childhood years, and perhaps even earlier. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin carried out the atrocity called “The Great Purge” in which nearly two million people, from leading political figures to ordinary citizens, were murdered in cold blood in order to establish his complete control over the Soviet empire. All opposition, or even perceived opposition, was exterminated. The “purges” included arrests, torture, forced labor, exile, execution, imprisonment, and trials that were merely for show. After Stalin’s death it was discovered that Stalin had been behind the deaths of more loyal Communists than had any of the so-called “enemies of the state.” He was assisted in his reign of terror by his secret police, which was originally called the Cheka and later became known as the GPU, NKVD and finally, KGB.

Knowing that his merciless behavior would no doubt lead to attempts at his life, Stalin lived in constant fear of conspiracy and assassination. R’ Berke Chein once told me that he happened to be in Yalta, in the Crimean peninsula, at a well-known resort area, when, at one point he saw a large crowd of people standing, their eyes on the horizon. When he asked who they were looking out for, he was told that Stalin was soon going to pass by.

A few minutes later, a large procession of armored cars drove by. To R’ Berke’s astonishment, in each one of the sixteen vehicles sat a person who looked exactly like Stalin! Such was the extent of Stalin’s fear. He located no less than sixteen look-alikes so that a potential gunman would not know whom to shoot!

(In the Russian periodical Alef, printed by Chamah, an article was once published about a certain Russian immigrant with a striking resemblance to Stalin. He related that in the 1930’s he was once sitting in a restaurant when a man approached him and asked to speak to him in private. As soon as he exited the building, he was shoved into a car and taken to the offices of the secret police.

He was told that he was being given an extremely exclusive task, merited by no one else in the entire country. He would represent the “father of all nations”—Stalin himself—in various international conferences.

After learning all the proper mannerisms, he began delivering speeches before international delegations, receiving foreign dignitaries, and so on. His every move was directed and he was told exactly what to say and how to act. Despite living a life of luxury in a government mansion, it was like a life in prison, locked up with chains of gold.)

Between the years 1936 and 1938, the minister of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov, arrested religious people; Jews and non-Jews alike. They were all detained under the law of Paragraph 58, which forbade anti-Soviet activity. Many Lubavitcher Chassidim were arrested during that dreadful time and dispatched to labor camps in the icy plains of Siberia, or shot to death in the KGB cellars on Lubyanka Street in Moscow. The name Lubyanka alone evoked such dread that people were afraid to walk near it.

By the onset of World War II, Stalin had annihilated most of the Bolsheviks who had played a prominent role during the Russian Revolution, or were members of Lenin’s government.

From the time when the “Great Purge” was being carried out, and the cries of death could be heard echoing across the land, Stalin consolidated his leadership by cultivating a group of followers that worshipped him to the most extreme degree. Stalin presented himself as the creator, hero, and father of the nations. The purpose of this group was to project Stalin to the masses as a giant of a man, and they employed the aid of visual propaganda to attain this goal. The number of portraits, posters, pictures and statues representing Stalin were formidable. An entire industry was devoted to producing portraits of Stalin. Writers and poets, movie producers and artists, were directed by the government to produce works that conveyed Stalin as the creator, hero, father, and powerful leader of the Russian Empire. The newspapers published only laudatory articles about him. An entire generation of children was raised with blind admiration for Stalin.

In the midst of WWII, when the enemy’s boots were deeply entrenched in Russian soil and the number of casualties was enormous and still growing, the cult of personality which Stalin had built around himself, which had until then been dictated from on high and was merely artificial, suddenly became a real source of hope for the population. If there was one man who could save the country, it was Stalin.

At the end of World War II, Stalin presented himself as a celebrated war leader who led the Soviet Union to a glorious victory against the Germans. At the same time he drew his attention back to eliminating the enemies from within. He gradually became enormously paranoid and killed anyone who was suspected of being anything less than absolutely loyal to him.

Stalin’s unfounded mistrust of his citizens applied even to his own people. An example of this was the actions taken against the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. It was an organization founded under his direction during the war in order to aid the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany by gaining the support of world Jewry. To establish the committee, high-ranking Jewish members of the Soviet government, along with unwitting Jewish activists who fell into the Soviet trap were enlisted. The organization’s goal, to advance the interests of the Soviet Union, was achieved with the help of propaganda that was based, supposedly, on the condition of the Jews in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Stalin used the members of the committee to further the battle against those Jews who wanted to escape the Soviet Union. The members of the committee, all of whom were Yiddishists, published a newspaper in Yiddish called Einikait (Unity) in which they spewed out vile articles against Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union. They referred to these Jews as reactionaries and cosmopolitans.

After a few years however, Stalin became suspicious of the members of this organization, all of whom were Jews. He dispersed the members with the excuse that it had turned into a center of “anti-Soviet propaganda.” The chairman, Shlomo Michaels (Vofsi), the artistic director of the Jewish theater in Moscow and one of the greatest Jewish actors, was murdered in 1948 by the Soviets in a staged car accident in a dark alleyway in Minsk. Over the course of the next year, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded and its members were arrested. After years of interrogations and torture, the death penalty was decreed for thirteen of them.